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The New High-Tech Dating Technology? Meet in a Bar

Friends at bar
Roy Hsu | UpperCut Images | Getty Images
Friends at bar

Online dating services have long promised to help people find a mate by using statistical science to predict personal chemistry. But some of the biggest services are now adding a retro twist.

Several sites are bringing people together the old-fashioned way, with singles parties where people can crowd together at bars while consuming alcohol and flirting.

“There have been so many times I’ve met up with someone from the Internet in person and didn’t feel a spark,” said Emily Clapp, who was at a recent beer-tasting event organized by the popular dating site OkCupid in a basement bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. “It’s so disappointing to invest all that time e-mailing and then... nothing.”

Like many others, Ms. Clapp says the offline events can help identify a potential date more quickly. Online, they find they can spend weeks or months exchanging messages with someone and then schedule dinner or drinks — only to realize within minutes that the date is a dud.

“There’s only so much you can do with data,” said Susan Etlinger, a research analyst at the Altimeter Group who advises companies on how best to use technology. “There’s always the unknown that has to do with pheromones and human nature.”

But why do you need to sign up for a dating site to meet someone in a bar? Ms. Clapp, a 31-year-old tax accountant, said that the sites acted as a filter, making it more likely that the other attendees were also single, looking for romance and not too creepy. But inevitably, she said, “it’s a little more random than regular online dating.”

The offline events, for members only, are offered as part of their monthly subscription or for a small fee. While many of the events are held in bars, others revolve around activities like learning to make fresh pasta, going on hikes or playing Skee-Ball. Both Match.com, a pay service, and OkCupid, which was bought by Match last year but operates independently, are getting behind the offline idea. Match bought commercial time during the Olympics to promote “The Stir,” as it calls its gatherings. In one ad, which is said to depict scenes from actual Match events, a bubbly blonde asks a new friend, “U.C.L.A.?” and then clinks glasses: “All right, Bruins!”

Match, which has nearly two million paying users, says it has held a few hundred events each month since May in more than 50 cities. OkCupid, which says it has 2.9 million active members, has organized about 100 events in New York since early July and plans to bring the idea to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and a few other cities in October. It also says it is revamping its business to put events at the forefront.

Smaller services are also offering gatherings. MeetMoi, whose app lets users broadcast their location and arrange a quick coffee or drink, has been hosting get-togethers to bring more of its users to the same space at the same time. And Nerve, a sex and dating site based in New York, says it is working on a mobile application that will emphasize nearby events.

The move toward real-world meetings follows some well-publicized studies that cast doubt on whether personality tests and data can accurately predict whether two people will be compatible. In one such study released in February, psychology researchers said there was “no compelling evidence” that matchmaking software worked better than more primitive methods.

The major online services say they are not reacting to those studies. But they are facing competition from services that are skipping the algorithms altogether, including How About We, which lets people look for dates based on first-date ideas, and Grouper, which sends six people on a blind group outing.

“We still use our matching algorithms,” said Mandy Ginsberg, president of Match.com. “But maybe it is slightly easier to walk into a room full of people meeting and talking.”

Online dating, it seems, may also have hit a plateau. Recent data from comScore, an analytics firm, shows that traffic across the 10 most popular dating sites did not increase over the past year. This may be partly because of the rising popularity of mobile dating apps. Even so, dating services typically have trouble holding onto users. Successful members who find love often delete their accounts. Those who don’t can get weary after one too many bad dates, so the services have to dazzle them and keep them around longer. That is where the social events come in.

Some dating sites and apps have been ahead of the curve when it comes to face-to-face gatherings. Grindr, a mobile app geared toward gay men, first spread the word about its service in 2009 by teaming up with local bars to throw parties. It now has four million members. And sites like Meetup have long encouraged people to corral like-minded individuals for get-togethers.

But not every company is sold on the idea of throwing people together in a bar and seeing what happens. EHarmony, one of the more established dating services, says it has no interest in moving away from its emphasis on a scientific approach.

“We are focused on getting our members to meaningful offline meetings with people who are deeply compatible, not creating large-scale happy hours,” said Becky Teraoka, a company representative.

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